Amy C. Willis
Why Admitting That We're Powerless Over Alcohol Sets Women Up For Failure
As someone in recovery from a problematic relationship with alcohol, I am often asked my thoughts on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and if I used it as a tool to support my sobriety. To be super clear, no, I have not used #AA BUT I have a lot of respect for them. They have supported millions of people globally in their #recovery journeys and do so free of charge, which is incredible. I completely understand why it works well for some and as a person who fully advocates that recovery can take a variety of forms and is often interdisciplinary, I have massive appreciation for AA being an option for so many.
With that, I also have a lot of (often unpopular) opinions on AA. I am especially interested in deconstructing step 1 of the 12 steps, to unpack why it’s problematic, especially for women. As you may know, the first step is: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
My biggest critique of this step is that we’re setting ourselves up and starting from a place where we label ourselves as powerless in our relationship to alcohol. If we make this true, how the hell are we ever supposed to change our dynamic to #booze and drinking if we’ve already decided that we’re powerless?
In AA, we are taught to think and admit we’re powerless and whatever power we do have is handed over to something or someone greater than us who can restore us and lead us back.
But here’s the thing: WE are our greater power. WE are powerful and ABSOLUTELY have the capacity to change our relationship to drinking. We all have an innate, inner power that is waiting for us to tap into it. But that’s incredibly hard to do when we’re drunk/numb/unconscious to the world and our inner power. Also, don’t get it twisted: I’m not suggesting that believing in a higher or greater power outside your self isn’t also a tool that can be helpful in your recovery. But holding a belief and giving your power away are two very different things.
This step in AA is especially troubling for me, as a woman, and for all the other women (I don’t care who you are - you’ve been affected by this) who have been told ALL THEIR LIVES that they are powerless by society, men and the patriarchy. These messages and systemic practices that serve to disempower women are further compounded for women of colour, queer women, women living in poverty and women who are otherwise vulnerable and disenfranchised.
The last thing we need, really, is to be told yet again by another institution - and in a highly vulnerable, increasing challenging situation - that our power isn’t enough and that whatever power we do have should simply be passed along to a power greater than us. Fuck. That.
For me, deciding to quit drinking was one of the most powerful decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
If you tell yourself something long enough, it becomes your truth. Words are powerful and can be used to build us up and heal us OR they can be used, day in and day out, to quietly and insidiously tear us down. So guess what? When you tell yourself daily that you’re powerless in your relationship with alcohol, that becomes your truth. This step, therefore, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s not a surprise that the Big Book and the 12 Steps were written by privileged, white men, almost 85 years ago! AA was created in 1935, very much to serve the needs of people like the men who created it. A lot has changed since this time. For context, women only fought for and won the right to vote in Canada a mere 17 years before AA was created. Women were barely considered people under the law so it’s not surprising that the impact that this would have on women wasn’t considered. Women were not the focus and unfortunately, the 12 Steps haven’t been updated since their creation.
What would happen if we flipped this step on its head and instead, told ourselves daily that we are powerful in our relationship to alcohol? That we control it and that in deciding that we’re done with drinking, we exercise more power than we’ve ever known? Powerful decisions are not made by powerless people.
The biggest take away here is that women are incredibly powerful beings who can overcome and grow through the worst life has to throw at us. Women are powerful, resilient, graceful and ultimately, unstoppable. But only if we choose to believe this and choose to ignore damaging messages from the #patriarchy that tell us we’re small and powerless.